When faith gives way to sight

… we shall see him as he is… 1 John 3:2

Just seven little words, snatched from a tiny passage (verses 1-3) – a passage which is one of the richest, most comforting and most challenging in the whole New Testament.

We shall see him as he is. I must have read those words hundreds of times in my Christian life, but, to my shame, it was only quite recently that their full impact dawned on me. One day I will see Jesus!

Most of us, reading those great Bible stories where men or women are suddenly confronted by the sheerly supernatural, have felt, perhaps, a little envious. Why have I never had such an experience?

Moses at the burning bush… Isaiah in the temple… Mary visited by the angel… the disciples watching Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm… Peter, James and John on the mountain of transfiguration… Mary Magdalene in the garden of resurrection… Paul “caught up to the third heaven”… John on Patmos falling “as though dead” at the feet of the risen Christ…

What stories these are! They make the spiritual experience of most of us – our daily “quiet time” and our humdrum efforts to walk by faith – seem pretty anaemic.

But John here tells us that one day such an experience will indeed be ours.

I wonder what it will be like? “Wait and see!” is probably the best answer to that question. But it’s hard not to try and imagine it.

I once attended a service in St Paul’s Cathedral when the Queen was present. There we were, a large crowd of people, and of course everyone wanted to see her (whether they also wanted to worship God – well, it’s not for me to judge on that…). Now the Queen is really quite short, and you couldn’t help but notice how everyone seemed to be craning their neck to catch a glimpse of her as she processed down the aisle.

Will it be like that when we get to heaven? “Oh, look, there he is, just to the right of those angels…!” or “He’s so different from what I imagined!”

Er, no, I don’t think so. “We will see his face” suggests something much more intimate.

Will it be frightening? Perhaps “Yes and no” is the best answer. Certainly it will be awesome – using that word in its literal meaning: that we will be awestruck. Some of the experiences in the Bible that I mentioned earlier were like that. And how could that not be the case? Can mortal human beings look on the face of God and not be overwhelmed?

But not frightening in a bad sense, surely. No, infinitely wonderful, comforting and fulfilling: after all, this, deep down, is what we have spent our lives waiting for, even when we weren’t particularly conscious of doing so.

In the Narnia stories C S Lewis’ child heroes find Aslan the lion to be both disturbingly strange and gloriously tender. So, perhaps, it will be for us.

I don’t know if all the doubts and questionings that trouble us in this earthly life will be immediately resolved; but I’m pretty sure they just won’t matter any more. And I’m also sure that all the pains and sorrows, all the hurts and wounds, will be gone for ever. Indeed, this is explicitly stated in Revelation 21:4: God “will wipe every tear from their eyes (yes! isn’t he our father!). There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…”

And, of course, no more sin. Just think of that…

Mind you, it seems that not every memory of our earthly existence will be blotted out. Even the glorified body of Jesus will still have the nail-holes in his hands and feet, and the sword-thrust in his side: he will appear to us, we are told, like “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6).

Just speculation? Perhaps so. But it needn’t be idle speculation – for shouldn’t thinking like this make a difference to the kind of people we are now, and the way we live our lives now? John himself makes this point in the very next verse: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Yes. If this kind of speculation doesn’t make us better people – more Christlike people – then something, surely, is seriously wrong.

Lord God, help me to live this earthly life like one who will one day look into the perfectly holy face of Jesus. Amen.

 

If you aren’t familiar with the Bible stories I mentioned earlier, here’s where to find them…

Exodus 3.

Isaiah 6.

Luke 1.

Matthew 14.

Mark 4.

Mark 9.

John 20.

2 Corinthians 12.

Revelation 1.

 

Why not take half an hour to read them through?

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You can’t have it both ways

Jesus said, “Come, follow me…” Matthew 4:19

Chatting recently to a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time, the subject of vegetarianism came up. “Are you a vegetarian, then?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Er, yes and no.”

At which we both burst out laughing. He realised as well as me that his answer was ridiculous: either you’re a vegetarian or you’re not. It has to be either Yes or No; it can’t be Yes and No.

Some things demand decisions. You can’t go to a football match and support both Manchester City and Manchester United. You have to make a choice. You can’t go into a polling station and vote for both Conservative and Labour. You have to make a choice. You can’t turn up on your wedding day and marry both Mary and Jane, or both Harry and Joe. You have to make a choice.

And Jesus calls us to make a choice.

In the Gospels, again and again he calls people to respond to his words and deeds. He calls the first disciples to leave their fishing-nets and follow him (Mark 1:17). He calls Zacchaeus to come down from the fig-tree and welcome him into his home (Luke 19:1-10). He tells the rich young ruler to give away his wealth and follow him (Mark 10:17-21).

When people met Jesus they were called to do something as a result; it wasn’t enough to go away just thinking about him – even if their thoughts were good thoughts: “What a wonderful man!” or “How interesting his words are!” or “That really is challenging!” No. The question was “What must I do?”

Perhaps the most extreme demand Jesus made was one based on the age-old pages of the Old Testament: that his hearers should “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). That’s some ask! – and you can’t say yes to it without making a clear, thought-through decision. It’s not something you can vaguely drift into.

Put it another way: with Jesus it’s either all or nothing at all. You may be whole-heartedly for him or whole-heartedly against him; but the one thing you can’t be is indifferent towards him.

Go back to my not-quite-vegetarian friend. What he said was absurd, but I think we both knew what he meant. He was convinced by the case for vegetarianism, and abstained from meat most of the time. But he couldn’t quite carry it through, and so, particularly on special occasions, he allowed himself to lapse. A half-vegetarian – except that that’s impossible.

Many of us, I fear, are half-Christians. Except that that’s impossible too.

We admire Jesus. We are moved by his life, death and resurrection. We find that his words drill right down into our hearts and play havoc with our consciences. Here, we sense, is life, truth, love, purity, power. Here is God!

We know that we should follow and obey him. As his friend Simon Peter put it to him, when Jesus suggested that the twelve might be tempted to leave him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” To whom indeed? Who else is there? Can you think of anyone? He went on: “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Exactly!

But somehow we hold back. And we don’t realise that in doing so we are not only failing him, but also being, as they say, our own worst enemy.

Suppose those first fishermen had turned down Jesus’ request to become “fishers of men”, and just carried on doing their routine job. Nothing wrong with being a fishermen of course; but think what they would have missed.

Suppose Zacchaeus had stayed up that tree till the crowds dispersed, refusing to come down and eat humble pie – and be remade as a new man. His petty, mean, cramped little life might have continued till the day he died.

And suppose that rich young man hadn’t rejected the request Jesus made of him. Yes, it would have been hard – but he wouldn’t, surely, have “gone away sad”. I think that sadness must only have deepened as his life – really, a wasted life – went on.

The message is simple: if we are going to be Christians, well, let’s be Christians.

As we look into our own hearts, are any of us, in truth, fence-sitting, wanting the name and comfort of being a follower of Jesus, but failing to give him our all? Make no mistake, the day will come when we will be sorry.

Is it decision-day for you?

Lord God, help me not to waste my precious life on earth by being a half-follower of Jesus. Amen.

Are you burdened? (2)

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… Acts 15:28

Burdens!

The first apostles declared that they didn’t want new converts to Christ to be unduly “burdened” when they joined the church.

Yes, burdens are bad. But they come in many shapes and sizes, even within the Christian community. Last time I suggested that there are two main types.

First, there are burdens of behaviour, where we are expected to act in certain ways which may or may not be part of God’s will (over and above obvious things like murder, lying, adultery and the rest).

Second, there are burdens of belief, where we are expected to toe a particular “party line”, depending on what denomination or movement we are attached to.

I wrote last time about burdens of behaviour; today let’s think about the second type: burdens of belief.

Just as there are certain types of behaviour which are simply wrong, and which every Christian would agree are wrong, likewise there are certain beliefs which every Christian accepts, beliefs without which you can’t in fact be a “Christian” at all.

All Christians believe there is a God; that Jesus Christ is his Son; that Jesus suffered, died and rose again to bring us forgiveness and salvation; that he has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to live within us and make us new people; that one day he will return to this earth to wind up history, to usher in God’s final judgment, and to take his people to be eternally with him. There is more, of course; but that’s the heart of it.

But there are also beliefs which, like the “grey areas” in behaviour, are open to differing interpretations. And the problem is that people who hold strong views on these beliefs often try to squeeze the rest of us into their particular mould, as if to say, “You’re not a real, or ‘sound’, Christian if you don’t believe the way we do.” They try to strap us into a strait-jacket.

Baptism is an obvious example. Most Christian denominations believe in baptising – or “christening” – babies. But others insist that only those old enough to believe in Christ on their own account should be baptised. An honest difference of opinion: but if one group suggests that the other isn’t really Christian, that is something to worry about – a burden.

All Christians believe in the “atonement” – that is, that when Jesus died on the cross he was dealing with the sins of the human race, and thus making us “at one” (get it?) with God. But once you start asking how the atonement actually “works”, the Bible suggests various answers which all need to be blended to give a full picture. Christians who insist on only one understanding are putting a burden on the rest of us.

All Christians believe in the Holy Spirit. But who exactly is the Holy Spirit? When exactly do we receive the Holy Spirit? Is “speaking in tongues” a sign of having received the Holy Spirit? What is “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”? Beware those who give over-dogmatic answers to such questions!

All Christians believe that one day Jesus is going to come back. But how will his return fit into the history of this world? At what point will it happen?

(If you like theological jargon, the question is: Are you a pre-millennialist, a post-millennialist, or an a-millenialist? If you haven’t got a clue what those terms mean I suggest you don’t worry! – but one day you may meet an earnest Christian who will try to convince you that you really should know. (Actually, I heard somebody once say that he was a “pan-millennialist” on the grounds that “everything will pan out (get it?) in the end”. A wise man, I think.))

I could go on. But you get the point.

All Christians believe that the Bible is, in some sense, the “word of God”. But it is a massively varied book. And the fact is that nobody – no, nobody at all, either living or dead – has got it all perfectly figured out. People who think they have are in danger of morphing into sects or cults.

A basic principle emerges: Christian, hold fast to the basics – and sit light to the rest. Our calling is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ; it is not to toe a particular party-line.

Anyone you meet who claims to love, trust and follow Jesus – and whose life backs up that claim – should be welcomed as a brother or sister. But anyone who is over-dogmatic on the non-essentials is to be treated – well, with love, of course. But also, I suggest, with considerable caution…

Lord God, thank you for the teaching of your word, the Bible. Please help me, by your Spirit, to grow in understanding day by day. But give me too the humility to recognise that others could be right and I wrong. Amen.

Are you burdened? (1)

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… Acts 15:28

“Burden” is almost always a negative word. It suggests a heavy weight that has to be carried. “I hate to be a burden to you,” we say, when we need somebody’s help. Or, “Yes, it’s a bit of a burden to us,” when we’re talking about a difficulty we’re facing. On the other hand, “That really is a weight off my mind!” when some trouble is solved. Burdens are bad!

In Acts 15 the early church is wrestling with a difficult question: how should new converts from the gentile (that is, the non-Jewish) world be received by the church? Must they become full-blown Jews, like the first followers of Jesus? Should full adherence to the Jewish law be required? Or should they be admitted to the church on easier terms?

Well, the debate became quite complicated. But the verse I have quoted sums up the essence of the solution that was arrived at: new converts should have as few burdens laid on them as possible. The church leaders said to them, in effect, “We want to welcome you just as you are! Yes, there are one or two things we would like you to agree to, but we’re not asking much – and we’re certainly not expecting you to become Jews like us. Just trust and follow Jesus.”

One of the main curses of “religion” of every kind is that it tends to pile burdens on people’s backs. It’s one of the things Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for: “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry…” (Luke 11:46). That’s “religion”!

Sadly, this can be a feature of Christianity. In fact, reading this, you might even find yourself saying, “Yes, I’m a sincere Christian, but I have to admit that sometimes I feel my faith is a burden to me rather than a help.” Yes?

I think that, broadly speaking, such burdens come in two forms: burdens of behaviour, and burdens of belief.

First, burdens of behaviour.

Certain types of behaviour are simply wrong: there can’t be any quibbling or dispute about them. Hatred, pride, envy, killing, sexual immorality, lying, stealing… that’s just a sample.

But there are other forms of behaviour which are what you might call “grey areas”, areas where equally committed Christians might disagree with one another.

It’s a long time since I became a Christian, way back in the 1960s, and a lot has changed since then. But there were certainly things that were frowned on…

It was pretty much assumed that if you were a Christian you wouldn’t drink or smoke or gamble; you wouldn’t go shopping on a Sunday – or go to the cinema or watch television on a Sunday. You would make sure to have a daily “quiet time” of a certain length, when you would read your Bible and pray. You were expected to dress in a certain way, especially for church.

Don’t get me wrong: many of these guidelines were good, and, as I look back, I’m glad I was introduced to them, because they helped me to lay a foundation for my life.

But unfortunately they didn’t always come across as “guidelines” – more like rules that had to be obeyed if you wanted to call yourself a Christian. They could easily become – yes, a burden, and they could suck the joy out of following Jesus because you were always wondering if you were measuring up.

As I said, a lot has changed since those far off days, and many of these burdens have been discarded by most Christians. But, even if in different ways, for many people Christianity smacks more of rule-keeping than of joyfully following Jesus. And that is not the way it is meant to be.

One of Jesus’ greatest words is his beautiful invitation to struggling men and women: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Praise God for that!

I said earlier that there are perhaps two kinds of burden which can plague religion: burdens of behaviour and burdens of belief. Well, I’ve run out of space, so I’ll come back to the second one next time.

But for the moment, here’s a question for all of us to think about: Is my Christianity a burden to me or a joy? Is it a matter of rule-keeping or of gladly following Jesus? Do I enjoy a personal relationship with God, or is my faith a balance sheet where I’m struggling to stay in credit?

The early church leader Augustine said, “Love God, and do what you like.” All right, that’s a snippet taken out of context, and could be open to misinterpretation! – but still, I think he was on to something, don’t you?

Lord Jesus, help me to follow you out of love and gratitude, not out of fear or mere tradition. Amen.

Confidence – a right and a wrong kind

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me….” Peter replied, “Even if everyone else falls away, I never will… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. Matthew 26:31-35

But, of course, they did.

Where were they in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed, after asking them to keep him company in his agony? Asleep.

Where were they at his trial before the Sanhedrin, being lied about, spat at and mocked? Who knows? All right, Peter was outside, but when challenged about his allegiance to Jesus he ended up cursing, swearing and dumping him like a sack of rubbish: “I don’t know the man!”

Where were they at the trial before Pontius Pilate? Don’t ask. Where were they as the nails were hammered home? Skulking, presumably, in some corner. Where were they at the burial? Again, who knows?

It’s easy to shake your head and despise them, isn’t it? All belt and no trousers! All hat and no cattle! All talk and no action. But of course it’s impossible to avoid the question, Where would I have been if I had been in their shoes? A question I personally would rather not ask…

So – an episode about over-confidence, indeed about arrogance. Is this a cap some of us need to wear?

One of the pluses of getting older is that (hopefully, at least) it drains the over-confidence out of you. I suspect that many of us go through a period when we (a) know just about everything there is to know, (b) are very happy to put everybody else right, and (c) are blissfully sure of our ability to face any situation. I know I did. I cringe now when I think of it.

And – let’s be brutally honest – some of us never entirely grow out of this mentality. There are some pretty arrogant oldies knocking around the place – perhaps I, and perhaps even you, among them.

It’s a great thing, even if also a painful one, to discover the truth about yourself. It means you can start at last to live the life you were intended for. Simon Peter certainly found this.

When the cock crowed, signalling his betrayal, he “went outside and wept bitterly”. But the moment of brokenness was the moment of healing: John tells us that it was in that very brokenness that he was restored by the risen Jesus (John 21:15-20). His life at that point was given a whole new start, and the pathetic wretch of the first Good Friday becomes, by God’s grace, the impressive figure of Pentecost and those wonderful following days.

Over-confidence is a weed that grows out of the soil of cast-iron certainty.

But this raises a question. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be certain?

Well, yes, of course. Certainly there is no room for any kind of fawning, foot-shuffling, hand-wringing humility – like the obnoxious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Indeed, the truly humble person never feels the need to claim humility: Francis de Sales (1567- 1622) said that “true humility makes no pretence of being humble, and scarcely ever utters words of humility.” Who needs words of humility when it’s just, well, what you are?

But certainty about God, about Jesus, about his life, death and resurrection, certainty about the fact that I am a sinner saved by grace, certainty about eternal life and about a divine purpose for my life here on earth – certainty about all these things is a very different matter from certainty about my own knowledge, my own wisdom, my own strength and my own capabilities. A very different matter.

There can have been few figures in Christian history more certain about his faith than Paul. Yet he frankly reveals in his letters that there were times when his confidence was low. When he warned the Corinthian Christians “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12) I think he knew what he was talking about. Indeed, his slightly puzzling admission in 1 Corinthians 9:27 is, to me, very revealing about his inner insecurities: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after having preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”. (Interesting…!)

The essential point is simple: as Christians “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And wherever faith – believing where we cannot see – is key, there is bound to be also the possibility of doubt. Even those cast-iron certainties about God will sometimes seem somewhat less than certain.

I started this little reflection with over-confidence and have somehow worked my way to humility and faith. (Rather like Simon Peter, in fact.) I didn’t plan it that way, but perhaps it’s not a bad journey to have made, a journey that leads naturally to prayer…

Lord, empty me of all arrogance and over-confidence, and fill me with love, faith and genuine humility. Teach me to trust solidly in you – but only very cautiously in myself. Amen.

A beautiful fragrance

And when he [the Lamb] had taken it [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. Revelation 5:8

Only very rarely have I attended a church service where incense is used. It doesn’t mean anything very much to me; in fact, to be completely honest, I rather dislike it, beautiful though it is. Is that because I don’t have a very good sense of smell? Or because, being a died-in-the-wool evangelical protestant, I’m instinctively suspicious of anything that smacks of Roman Catholic ritual?

Never mind! Let’s just say that it really isn’t my thing.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that incense played an important part in the worship of Israel in Bible times.

That worship, when you stop and think about it, must have been a seriously smelly affair. I’ve never been in an abattoir, but there must have been a similarity – with animals slaughtered, their blood shed, and their bodies burned. The fragrance of incense must have been a welcome counterpoint to this.

We never read in the New Testament of incense being used by the early Christians. But it certainly has a place in John’s description of the worship of heaven. Here it is in Revelation 5:8: the “twenty-four elders” (whoever they might be) “were holding golden bowls full of incense…”

The Book of Revelation is full of colourful, poetic and dramatic imagery: angels, dragons, thrones, scrolls, seals, trumpets, you name it. It isn’t always easy to say what these things represent – that even applies to the “four living creatures” and the “twenty-four elders” in our verse.

But when it comes to the bowls of incense, the writer John very helpfully spells it out for us: “which are the prayers of God’s people”. Ah! – that incense is our prayers!

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Way back in the Old Testament the psalmist asks God that his prayers “may be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2). There is, it seems, a thread running through the Bible.

How can this image speak to us today?

I suggest two simple applications.

First, it reminds us that our prayers are precious to God.

Incense is a sweet, beautiful fragrance, and probably very costly. And in the same way, God values and delights in the prayers we offer.

You might think, “But, hang on, my prayers are really pretty feeble! Often I’m praying more out of duty than joy. The other day I actually nodded off while I was praying! I find it hard to believe that God is that interested in my praying.”

But wait a minute! All that God wants of us is that our prayers should be  sincere and from the heart. Who knows? – perhaps he values more highly the prayers that we struggle to pray than the ones that trip lightly off our tongues.

Let’s get it into our heads: God loves to hear us pray! We are his precious children, and just as an earthly father or mother is thrilled with their child’s attempts at speech, so God is thrilled with our prayers.

Second, it suggests that our prayers are in safe hands.

As I said, we can’t be absolutely sure who the twenty-four elders represent. But they are obviously significant figures in God’s heavenly court. Their task – at this point, at least – is to present the prayers of God’s people at his throne. And just as not a drop of incense will be spilled (I don’t think the words “Oops, silly me!” will ever be heard in heaven), so we can be confident that not a single prayer of ours will go to waste.

The very idea of our prayers gathered up in a bowl suggests to me that they ascend to God not just in dribs and drabs, but as a united voice from his people.

We pray a prayer and then very possibly forget that we ever prayed it. Or perhaps we sometimes give up praying for a particular person or a particular situation. And so we are tempted to think that that prayer might just as well not have been offered.

But no! Who knows when that prayer might be gathered up, so to speak, and poured out before God? Things are going on in heaven – things are going on in the very mind of God – which we couldn’t even begin to guess at. Again, who knows? – you might receive tomorrow the answer to a prayer you prayed five years ago – and then forgot about.

So, Christian, however ordinary, fumbling and inadequate your prayers may seem to be, keep that fragrance rising to God! He values it, even if you don’t.

Loving Father, please help me to keep those golden bowls well filled! Amen.

Something to be ambitious about

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord… That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither… Psalm 1:1-3

Psalm 1 is a little gem. If you haven’t read it recently I encourage you to do so. It contains, among other things, a portrait of the “righteous” or godly person.

What makes it so beautiful? Well, it’s very short – just six verses – and very simple. It compares the godly person to a fruit-bearing tree standing beside a stream. That simple comparison conjures up for us the beauty of the countryside on a fine day – it gives a sense of peace, quietness and rich fertility. You can almost smell the country smells, see and hear the cattle grazing.

What I like in particular is that the emphasis is not on what a person achieves, but on what a person is like. It’s about character rather than about success.

We badly need this emphasis today. I’m not saying that what we achieve in our lives is unimportant – of course not. But we live in a world where it sometimes seems as if it’s the only thing that matters.

How much do you earn? How many qualifications do you have? How hard do you work? How successful are you in your particular walk of life? What sort of home do you live in? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you go on holiday?

Without even thinking about it, these are the kind of questions we instinctively ask about people.

Whereas what really matters is – How honest am I? How kind? Do I have a generous spirit? A forgiving heart? Do I care for those in need and trouble? Am I good-natured and happy to enjoy the success of others?

The fact is that it’s people like that who make our world a bearable place to be. Just imagine if everyone was a driven, go-getting type, intent on climbing up that greasy pole of personal ambition and not too bothered whose faces they tread on on the way.

The Bible contains various other passages which you could call companion pieces to Psalm 1. Here are three – they form a trail.

First, Jesus’ “beatitudes” in Matthew 5:3-10.

Jesus honours those who are “poor in spirit” – humble and unpretentious. He honours “the meek”, and those who have an insatiable appetite for “righteousness”. He honours the “merciful” and the “peace-makers”. Above all, to my mind at least, he honours “the pure in heart”.

I find that last little phrase massively challenging, especially when I look into the murky depths of my own heart. Purity of heart implies a single-mindedness about being and doing what is right – about bearing a resemblance to the all-holy and perfect God.

I belong to a small poetry-reading group. We meet every fortnight to share poems on some chosen theme. I can’t remember what the theme was a few weeks weeks ago, but it seemed appropriate to read the Beatitudes (stretching the word “poetry” a touch, perhaps!). It took just a matter of seconds to read those few verses, but when I had finished one of the others in the group simply said, “That’s so beautiful I feel I want to cry.” I think that says it all.

Second, Paul’s great analysis of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Christians of Corinth were high-achievers in spiritual terms, no doubt about that. They had all the “gifts of the Spirit” anyone could want – tongues, healing, prophecy, miracle-working, you name it. But they lacked the one thing that really mattered: a God-like love.

And what is that love like? Well, not surprisingly it bears a strong resemblance to what we’ve just seen in the beatitudes. Patient… kind… refusing to be envious… humble… selfless rather than selfish… calm under provocation… never harbouring grudges… transparently honest.

Paul doesn’t add “like a tree standing beside a stream”, but I think he could have, don’t you?

Third, Paul’s list of “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatian 5:22-23.

These words are so powerful and so radiant that I think it’s best to simply let them speak for themselves: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”

Is that you? Is it me?

Are you looking for something to aim at in your life? My suggestion is this: you really couldn’t do better than start with Psalm 1 and follow the Bible trail I have suggested.

It’s important to read slowly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. But if you do, be warned – you will never be the same person again!

Lord Jesus, make me like that tree planted by streams of water, bearing day by day the fruit of the Spirit. Amen.